Tuesday, 8 May 2018


On Sunday I went to Bendigo with my friend K to have a look at the Marimekko exhibition that's on in the art gallery there.

I love Marimekko; 'love' is very much the right word. Violent and deep emotions are conjured up for me by the name - which, I learned, translates as 'Mary Dress', ie dresses for ordinary women -  the Finnishness, the explosion of imagination about what women could be that is represented by the dresses they invented for the 1960s. I love the colours, the shapes, the fabrications, the particular design challenges posed and solved by their best work; the legend of Jackie Kennedy buying eight dresses and changing everything everywhere, the simultaneous immense wearability and immense unwearability of a classic Marimekko maxi dress or mini shift. I understand the fabrics and the prints but I was intensely curious to actually see the iconic sixties and seventies dresses; I had many questions about how those garments work which could not be answered by looking at pictures of them in a book. 

 I know I've told you this already; in the living room of my childhood home there were five big cushions on the couch which my mum had sewed Marimekko covers for. It was in my grandmother's house too, also in the form of interior decor textiles. When I was about thirty, and discovered internet shopping, I began to buy precious and relatively small pieces of Marimekko from overseas. The quilt on my bed is made of Marimekko offcuts I bought for almost nothing. In our house in Montmorency the curtains were all Marimekko cottons. I brought the curtains from Leonard's room with us to this place. It's woven through my life.

I've only ever had one garment made of Marimekko, though. At a point when I really couldn't afford it, I treated myself to one metre of black, white, lime and yellow Unikko - the poppy print that is now in the same visual category as the Gucci monogram or the Nike swoosh - and made a very tight pencil skirt of it, pretty much just by underlining it in white silk, wrapping it round my hips and legs, and putting a zip and a seam down the centre back. Once I was wearing it at a party and Theresa Liano, then a fairly shit-hot fashion designer, looked at it and said to me, Oh is that...what's it called? I had to say the name. She recognised it, perhaps as a historical footnote to twentieth-century fashion, but also she didn't. That would not happen now, that the rebirth and rise of Marimekko as a global lifestyle and homewares brand has been successfully accomplished. This reinvention is a phenomenon I find entirely regrettable aesthetically and very interesting sociologically. 

Without looking them up, I think these designs, L-R, are: Sireeni, Yumi, Kaivo, Kivet, Unikko...not sure of the name of the yellow one but it is something military

The exhibition had enough fifty-year-old dresses in it to make me very happy (although as K pointed out, it would have been nice if the gallery could have found some mannequins that actually fitted the garments - drag lines marred almost everything.)  And the presence of those dresses, side-by-side with these hangings of cloth, explained the genius of peak Marimekko and why it is so elusive now and also why the present-day Marimekko merch - the mugs and trays and plates and towels and umbrellas and napkins, and most of all, the fabrics by the metre and the expensive frocks - doesn't have the magic, the 'verve', as American Vogue called in in 1965, of the original garments.

It's a simple thing, really. It's scale. Scale and simplicity. 


The earliest iterations of these now iconic prints were so large that the first design priority was almost always to eliminate cuts. Most dresses in the show have no fastenings. There is a front and a back and you pull it on over your head. The next priority is then to give the garment a shape that is simple and that harmonises with the print but also holds its own - is not dominated by it. 
That gold and ochre trapeze shift dress was my favourite thing in the show. It has an almost unnecessary seam at centre front, so that print is broken - ever so subtly - this would not work with a more contrasty print. And the off-the-wall moment in the dress is that fantastic quilted hem, which will give the dress weight and drape and an independent shape. I'm going to have a go at making something like this as soon as I can find an appropriate fabric.

Also amazing, and I would kill, KILL for a bit of this fabric which I think it called Carnival and is not manufactured any more, obviously because it's just too good.

The show included a small selection of technical drawings, gouache print designs and swatches. Other than these, which the visitor is left to her or his own devices to interpret, there is almost no context or information in the show about the design thinking embedded in the work, and I just find that to be incredibly strange, given that this is an art gallery show, and presumably, somewhere along the line, somebody curated it. 

The historical narrative was present but again, curatorially it was so downplayed as to be almost invisible unless you were really looking for it. I wondered if this might have been a possibly subliminal response to the fact that the trajectory is one of steady artistic decline. In part this seems to have been because the original sixties customer aged and got conservative, in part the diversification into home-dec textiles started something that has ended in the infinitely tragic spectacle of poppy-print paper serviettes. But basically it looks like over time, people took over the firm who did not understand what it was about and what made it special. 

A text panel somewhere in the show noted that Marimekko almost ended somewhere in the early nineties, but it was revamped just in the nick of time and is now more or less a household name.  That's good I guess. But this is how it was achieved:

A crazy, insane, generous, unfeasibly beautiful, larger than life design of the 1970s - Mansikkavuouret, Strawberries in the Sky, if ya must know - shrunk down and tamed so three repeats can be fitted onto one limp singlet dress. YAWN. Cry. 

This is just a shapeless sack in a busy all-over print. Fine in its way, but its way is a boring way. I imagine you could walk into the Marimekko shop in the city and buy one of these tomorrow. It will cost you a week's wages, and you'll be buying a logo.

But to return to the glory days:

 If this dress was a human being I would have asked it to run away with me

Love. Love! Love.


JahTeh said...

This took me so far back. I remember Vogue House and Marion Von Adler (memory not so good) and she championed the wild colours and patterns to re-do the old Fifties homes. I've always kept a cuttings book for houses and there was a lot of Marimekko that I loved so much so that when I did get a house I wallpapered the bathroom, walls and ceiling in a paper as close to Marimekko as I could find. I really should blog about wallpapering a ceiling but I ended up with a jungle room in shades of green. Taking it down was much easier, I locked the kids in the bathroom with promises of wealth and it was gone in two hours with hardly a chip in the plaster or a broken bath.

lucy tartan said...

A wallpapered jungle bathroom sounds very amazing and I like the thought of a wallpapered ceiling although wouldn't the steam make it fall off?

JahTeh said...

It was not a self glue paper so I really layered on the made up glue.
It didn't go down too well with the ex with his Sunday hangovers, all greens and such.